As Plan S Takes Effect, Some Anticipate Inequitable Outcomes
As Plan S Takes Effect, Some Anticipate Inequitable Outcomes

As Plan S Takes Effect, Some Anticipate Inequitable Outcomes

The plan’s signatories seek to make the results of their funded research available to all, but some scientists say the transition to open access has led to climbing publication fees and could exacerbate global disparities.

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In the three years since its announcement, Plan S, an initiative dedicated to making scientific research publicly available, has attracted new members, including international organizations and government funding agencies from around the world. A number of researchers question the global impact of Plan S’s implementation, however, raising concerns that its stringent open-access mandates have contributed to an increase in associated publishing costs that could potentially cut into research budgets and exacerbate inequalities that already exist in science publishing.   

See “Plan S: The Ambitious Initiative to End the Reign of Paywalls

Plan S is a set of requirements drafted in September 2018 by a newly formed group of 11 national funding agencies across Europe collectively dubbed cOAlition S and supported by the European Commission and, initially, the European Research Council. The group aims to end the reign of paywalls and promote a transition to a fully open-access publishing model in science.  

Traditionally, scientific journals have been sustained by subscriptions paid by libraries, institutions, and individual readers, while authors have published mostly for free. The number of journals and their subscription fees have grown in recent decades. For instance, one analysis reported 515- and 479-percent increases in the average price of library subscriptions to physical science and medical journals, respectively, between 1984 and 2001. The fast rise in subscription prices has been one of the motivations behind the push for open-access publishing, in which authors pay a fee known as an article processing charge (APC) to publish, but content is freely available.  

Plan S mandates that newly published studies are made open access without a waiting period and that funders must cover grantees’ APCs. However, some scientists are concerned about the consequences of this rigorous mandate. The absence of a waiting period during which only subscribers can read papers, some argue, is a policy that may cause publishers to charge APCs in order to make up for an anticipated decline in subscription sales. In the past decade, APCs among journals with higher impact factors have skyrocketed: at journals in the upper half of Scopus classification, APCs increased 86 percent, while those in the upper half of the Journal Citation Reports (JCR) ranking increased 135 percent, according to a recent preprint

See “Opinion: Understanding and Coping With Rising Publication Costs

“Essentially what Plan S is doing is it’s moving from a reader-pays to a [author]-pays system,” says Robin Crewe, a retired entomologist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa and former president of the Academy of Science of South Africa. “That’s fine in systems in which the research activities are well funded,” he says, but “when you come to developing countries like South Africa, the grants are not nearly as generous.” 

Indeed, South Africa is set to serve as an early test case in how Plan S’s mandates will play out outside Europe. The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) is one of the few non-European national agencies that has joined Plan S. “SAMRC conducts research to improve the health of the country. This cannot be achieved if research results are behind paywalls and not accessible to all,” Nikiwe Momoti, who is leading SAMRC’s Plan S transition, writes in email to The Scientist.  

However, it is not clear whether the high cost of APCs will cut into resources available for other aspects of SAMRC-funded research. “With the kind of financial constraints that we’re under now, it seems to me very unlikely that additional funding is going to be made available to support research,” says Crewe. “If additional funding is not made available . . . the funding for the APCs is going to come at the expense of the actual grants themselves.”  

Alicia Kowaltowski, a biochemist at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, also expresses concern about the implementation of Plan S. “It’s very clear for everybody that science should be openly readable,” she says. “The problems I see with Plan S is that it’s pushing for open access . . . very quickly before [thinking] of other problems in the publishing industry.”  

She adds that the push toward a pay-to-publish system will affect researchers worldwide, regardless of whether their national research agencies sign onto Plan S. “The fact that [Brazil’s government funding agencies] didn’t sign [Plan S] doesn’t mean we are not affected by this, cause the prices are going up.”

A global impact on publishing 

A knock-on concern of steeply rising APCs is that inequities in science will be exacerbated. Last year, Springer Nature announced it would charge €9,500 (approximately $11,200 US) for publishing an open-access paper in the Nature family of journals. That’s more than twice the cost of one year of a PhD fellowship in Argentina, notes Humberto Debat, a virologist at the country’s National Agricultural Technology Institute. “[The] shift into APCs could be widespread and leave us extremely behind because of the asymmetries in [economies].” 

Robert Kiley, the head of strategy of cOAlition S and the head of open research at the Wellcome Trust, says that the coalition “is trying to get publishers to think more about how they can develop more equitable models.” He points to an initiative at PLOS, a pioneer open-access publisher, called a Global Equity Model, which the publisher recently implemented for three of its journals. In this model, an institution pays an annual fixed fee based on its historical publishing activity in the field covered by the journal and the classification by income of the country where it is located. Researchers at member institutions can then publish an unlimited number of articles in the selected journal.  

“It’s those sort of models which we are seeking to encourage,” says Kiley.  

In addition, Plan S already has some requirements that encourage more-equitable publishing practices. To be eligible to publish results generated using funds from Plan S signatories, open-access journals or platforms must provide APC waivers for researchers from low-income economies and discounts for those in lower-middle-income countries. They must also provide waivers or discounts for scientists elsewhere with “demonstrable needs.” Therefore, at journals following the requirements, authors from upper-middle-income economies such as Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa have to individually ask for waivers or discounts if they need them.  

But Kowaltoski says she’s heard from other researchers in Brazil that this process can be arduous—for instance, some have been asked to show their personal bank statements. It’s not defined what demonstrable need means, she says. Furthermore, in her experience, when asking for a discount, she has obtained at most 20 percent, which did not make much difference to the APCs’ affordability. “Upper-middle-income countries should be in the discount bracket,” she says, instead of having to apply on a case-by-case basis. On the other hand, Debat argues that “the entire concept of waiver is damaging to publishing” because “it puts underprivileged researchers in a position where they have to beg to somebody in a large editorial industry.”  

Transformative agreements are one of the strategies cOAlition S suggests journals use in their transition to open access.

Kowaltoski further argues that funding agencies should set standards for APC pricing, first analyzing the real costs of publication and then deciding on fair pricing, and, for example, capping APCs. In the near future, cOAlition S will begin requiring publishers to be transparent about their costs (see “Breaking Down the Costs” below). However, Kiley says that he personally does not see caps on APCs as a solution. In his view, he explains, brands like Nature are expensive due to their high rejection rates—that is, their APCs support the salaries of people in high-income countries who are paid for rejecting manuscripts. “The problem is not the price; the problem is the model,” he says, and he encourages scientists to submit their work in alternative platforms if they find branded journals overpriced.   

Kiley adds APCs aren’t the only publication cost that researchers or their institutions bear: “we shouldn’t forget that even in [low- and middle-income] settings, quite a lot of money is spent on subscriptions. . . . That money now needs to be transitioned to support the publication of research,” he says. Kiley refers specifically to so-called transformative agreements between institutions and publishers, where the money currently spent on subscriptions is repurposed to support open-access platforms. 

Transformative agreements are one of the strategies cOAlition S suggests journals use in their transition to open access. The coalition is currently not funding publication in hybrid journals—those publishing both open-access and paywalled articles—unless they adopt any of such strategies in order to convert to full open access by the end of 2024. Several journals have committed to this transition, including those from major publishers such as Elsevier and Springer Nature.   

Diamonds and other alternatives 

Despite its ambitions for transforming scientific publishing, some researchers in developing countries argue that Plan S doesn’t go far enough. Ahmed Ogunlaja, a medical doctor in Nigeria, health policy scholar at Washington University in St. Louis, and Plan S ambassador, writes in an email to The Scientist that early on, he heard from some researchers “that Plan S was not sufficiently radical, that it focused too much on sustaining the status quo in terms of the power relations in research publishing.” They suggested Plan S should be supporting a shift to models such as diamond open access, a free-to-read and free-to-publish model with a strong tradition in Latin America. Diamond open access journals are usually backed by scholarly societies, funded by higher-education institutions, or staffed by volunteer editors.  

In response to this feedback, the coalition reached out to stakeholders in Latin America, and commissioned a study to look at the viability of diamond open-access models, Ogunlaja explains. Even though the report concluded that less than 5 percent of diamond journals currently comply with Plan S criteria, its results have attracted attention. France recently announced that it intends to support and enact the resulting recommendations to strengthen diamond journals. Ogunlaja says that the most obvious way to confront climbing APCs is “to further develop and support other publishing models, especially the diamond open access model.” 

Kowaltowski is also a diamond open access advocate, and says that scientists should try “to support journals that are backed by scientists more than journals that are backed by brand names.” 

Debat and Kowaltowski argue that it’s not that simple. While each say that they wouldn’t be harmed if they stopped publishing in big-name journals due to unaffordable APCs, they say that students and younger researchers starting a career would. “Their careers depend on the science they produce, and unfortunately today they are still judged by where they are published,” says Kowaltowski. Crewe agrees that this is a problem younger generations of researchers will face.  

There are a lot of incentives to keep on publishing in commercial journals, such as career advancement and prestige, says Debat. “It’s not that you can leave behind all [those metrics], because then you get isolated,” he says, but in Argentina, a government advisory committee in open science, which he belongs to, is currently discussing how to face those challenges at least at a regional level—for instance, “how to make incentives to publish more in community-led [and] scholarly-led journals” instead of in for-profit titles.   

“Although [open access] is desirable,” concludes Kowaltowski in an email to The Scientist, “I don’t think we need to transition fast to [it] before talking and solving other problems regarding scientific publications.”

Breaking Down the Costs

According to Kiley, starting in July 2022, cOAlition S “will require publishers to share their price and service data.” At the moment, we only know that publishing an open-access article in a given journal costs a fixed amount of money, Kiley explains, but with that change, publishers will need to break down the list of services involved in publishing a paper and their costs.  

“We can’t force publishers [to provide these data]—we are not a regulatory body,” says Kiley, but the plan is to create clear incentives for publishers to do so. For instance, if they provide these data, he says, cOAlition S will continue to fund open-access publication costs for their journals. He says that in the future, researchers could choose to only pay for essential services—for example, the submission system, peer review, copy-editing—and skip others, such as marketing.